Category Archives: Classroom Culture

Teacher Identity Matters

This wasn’t the blog I intended to write but one I felt compelled to write. As a teacher consultant, I work in a variety of schools across the nation and overseas. This particular day I was in a school filled with students new to our country, who have tremendous gaps in their literacy backgrounds, and whose parents struggle to make ends meet. In small groups, teachers were discussing their identity as readers and writers.

“I don’t read except for some informational text,” one teacher said. “I just got burned out in college reading all those books I didn’t want to read.”

And who was this teacher? The interventionist. The professional whose job it is to support striving readers: those readers who don’t know how to choose a book, who don’t have the strategies they need to read with understanding, and who haven’t experienced the pleasure in finding a book they love. I wondered how she could instill the joy and love of reading if she didn’t know it for herself. How could she help students develop their identities as readers if she doesn’t view herself as a reader?

Then I heard a teacher in another group say, “I love to read. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a day without reading. And I know I’ve never gone a day without writing something.”

“What?” someone in her group asked incredulously. “You write every day?” It was clear that the other teachers in her group shared that response. What those colleagues didn’t understand was that this was a teacher who was a member of the literacy club that Frank Smith wrote about years ago, a teacher who could open the door for her students to also join this club.

Overhearing these conversations reminded me of conversations with teachers in other schools and made me think about the importance of a teacher’s identity, particularly in a readers and writers workshop:

  • “I can’t get my kids invested in their writers’ notebooks. They won’t use them unless I stand over them.” When asked about her own writers’ notebook, she shyly admitted she hadn’t kept one since college.
  • It was day one of a two-week writing institute for teachers. I explained, “In the mornings we study writing instruction and in the afternoons, we write ourselves.” At the first break, one teacher left with plans not to return. Her colleague explained, “She hates to write.” And who was the disappearing teacher? A high school English teacher.
  • A principal – formerly a high school English teacher – told me, “High school students hate to write. You have to do something to trick them into it.” When one of her teachers asked for supplies to beef up her writers workshop, the principal turned her request down, convinced that those supplies would be a waste of the school’s limited funds.
  • With surprise, I watched one of the most caring teachers I had worked with teach a grammar lesson. “When do you use semi-colons?” she asked. And when a student answered correctly, she threw him a piece of candy. She posed question after question about conventions, tossing out more candy when students gave her the right answers. When we debriefed, she told me that she hated teaching grammar  and didn’t know any other way to engage her students in thinking about the rules.
  • Down the hall from that teacher, I watched another teacher confer with one of her young writers. Opening her writers notebook, the teacher said, “I hated the way this part sounded, so I thought I’d try using a colon and list some ideas, just like what we saw in Barbara Kingsolver’s story the other day. Why don’t you give this craft move a try and let me know what you think.”
  • “Those young adult novels are lousy literature. I would never assign one to my students.”  When I asked about what she had read recently, she told me that she hadn’t read a young adult novel since college but trusted the judgment of her friend the librarian.
  • I watched another teacher confer with a reluctant reader. “You might try tScreen Shot 2020-01-22 at 5.00.36 PMhis one. I loved it,” she suggested as she handed him Kwame Alexander’s Crossover. A few days later, the student shyly asked the teacher for another book just like that one. And the teacher found one and then another for him. Because this teacher read young adult literature, she could bring herself into the classroom in the same way Julie Swinehart did in her blog about summer reading.

Teacher identity matters. Our identity as readers, writers, literary scholars, even editors carries over into the classroom, shaping our interactions with students, the plans we make, the structures we put into place. A teacher who sees herself as a reader can share her enthusiasm and knows the value of providing choice and time for students to read. I wonder if a teacher can create a dynamic readers workshop if she doesn’t love to read?

And what about writing workshop? Can a teacher design and implement a writers workshop if she never writes herself? Or can he promote the value of a writers notebook if he doesn’t keep one himself? Can we nurture our students identities as readers and writers if we aren’t a part of the literacy club?

I wonder.

 

How do you nurture you identity as a reader? As a writer? What impact does your identity have on your reading or writing workshop?

 

A Return to Flexible Seating

After introducing flexible seating into my junior/senior English classroom last year, I reflected in July about what I liked and didn’t like about the classroom arrangement.  After implementing some changes of my own and many reader suggestions (thank you!), I wanted to reflect over another semester of flexible seating.

Room.JPG

What I changed this fall:

  • Furniture Arrangement:  This year, I made smaller pods of seating. I got rid of the large round tables that ate up a lot of the room and actually moved in more traditional desks (partially due to larger classes).  With the additional space, I was able to fit two smaller tables and a set of chairs for students to work, providing more options for spaces. The room has a nearly-equal balance of seats that require students to use clipboards for writing and desktops or tables.
  • Expectations:  We had a discussion about the purpose and role of flexible seating in the classroom at the end of the second week of school and set guidelines together versus rules.  Students were granted permission to move the furniture to better facilitate group work or sight of the whiteboard, with the stipulation the room comes back to order when the bell rang.  We also discussed the importance of creating a single classroom environment, not one of multiple little pods, and facilitating that through direct eye contact.  I also shared my goal that the classroom feels more like a home than a place of rigid learning, but that homes are to be respected.  
  • Ownership:  While I still reserve the right to ask a student to make a better seating choice, I started the year by asking students to change seating areas each day for the first two weeks.  I believe this established that no one has a “spot,” but we share the space based on need and how we are feeling each day. Additionally, students are required to select a seating new area of the classroom every six weeks or so, which coincides with our school’s midterms and quarters.

Room1.JPG

Room2.JPG

Room3.JPG

IMG_3516.JPG

With larger classes this year, the room is more crowded, but feels more, well, flexible.  Removing the large, cumbersome tables also makes re-arranging the desks and chairs for a Socratic Seminar much easier.  I also have enough desks to facilitate an inner circle of desks and an outer circle of chairs. With smaller tables, groups are naturally formed which is a time saver and I can check in with one area at a time for conferences or work checks. Additionally, with less traditional seating available than with last year’s set up, my students and I have utilized the luxury of the cafeteria tables right outside my door.  While one class period a day may not be able to access these additional workspaces because of the lunch schedule, the cafeteria tables have become an extension of our classroom and great for spreading out groups or when we need more table space.

With very few reminders, students have been respectful and able to flow between small group learning and whole-class learning.  I notice students craning their necks to look at their peers or myself when talking and students.  While some classes are more open to moving daily than others, I find more students are switching around where they sit every few days, are moving based on what we are doing in class, and voluntarily switching seats to accommodate peers.  Students this year take responsibility for their seating choice for the day and have not “claimed” a seat as students did last fall, sitting there through the spring. Sometimes, I confess, the classroom does feel disjointed, like when students are working independently and chatting with those close to them, but I remind myself that at least they’re in a community, not isolated desks of individuals.

While the set-up and general facilitation of non-traditional seating is not always easy and I’d love to make my own place in the classroom just as flexible, students unanimously responded across six classes that they prefer the arrangement and choice to rows of desks, especially for reading time.  So if it works for them, I will make it work for me!

Maggie Lopez wishes everyone a happy, productive 2020 full of excellent books!  She is currently reading “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann after thoroughly enjoying “Killers of the Flower Moon.” You can connect with her @meglopez0.

When Your Teaching Life Throws You a Curve…

Hit a home run.

Or at least make contact, get on base, and rely on your teammates and experience to get you across home plate.

This new year, the new decade, reminds me that teachers often face new challenges and situations. Think about that student who transfers into your school nine days before the semester ends or the joy and then horror that flashes through your mind when you see that new copiers have been installed.

Sometimes though, we face new adventures that even vast swaths of experience cannot prepare us to handle the way we parry and deflect most of what’s throw at us. For me, a move away from athletics pushed me toward new classes that revealed just how comfortable I had become in my almost decade working with seniors. Last year freshman English and freshman Pre-AP English classes taught me about patience and pacing. This year sophomores and AP juniors force me to flex muscles I never knew I had and push me to explore the boundaries of my workshop pedagogy.

For those of us who face the anxiety of teaching a totally new class, a new unit of study, or even a new lesson, consider this advice:

  1. Lean on the pillars of experience around you.
  2. Trust the reading and writing workshop process.
  3. Build a team.
  4. Explore your literacy.

I’ve been blessed to leap into these last two years, and the change they promised, with groups of teachers who had been there before and knew what to expect.  Their knowledge and willingness to support me allowed for less time learning new content and more time planning effective lesson delivery.  While I have many questions, they seem to always have an answer that guides me back on the pathway to success.

Lean into the workshop that supports reading and writing because it invites literacy learners to feel safe within the routines and community that literacy learners need. New learning happens much easier then the teacher and the students feel comfortable and safe with each other.

Growing your support system beyond your teaching team is important. Living on front street with your students about your inexperience can be a scary proposition, but it can also invite them into the type of relationship where they understand that you will all grow together and that they are not the only ones being asked to shoulder a growth mindset. As for the adults in the building, instructional coaches are there to help you and support you, looking for clues to the type of help you need, listening when you struggle, celebrating your successes because they own a piece of your potential. Lastly, but no less importantly, build relationships with your administration. Extend the invitation for them to be in your room and learn about the students that pass through your life on a daily basis.  Admin isn’t there solely to handle disruptions or crisis. Rather, they, like every other educator in the building, have a vested interest in the success of your students and deserve the opportunity to experience your greatness.

Never forget the value of reading and writing beside your students. When you aren’t sure how to fairly and authentically assess the writing tasks you ask your students to perform, write your own response.  When you ask them to revise their writing, invite them into your process to help you explore your ideas.  They will jump at the chance to support your writing the way you support theirs. Share your reading life too.  Your reading life will engage them just as deeply, and as they learn more about what you like to read, they will learn more about you and, perhaps, about their own compassion.

Most importantly, trust the process. Believe in yourself in the face of new experiences. You owe it to the students and to yourself.


Charles Moore recently returned from a 2025 mile road trip vacation where he learned about new people and places and loved every minute of it. He encourages everyone to try to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park and The King Center. Bring some tissues just in case a high school band spontaneously shows up to play for Dr. King.

“It’s Beautiful” – A Simple Reminder

Happy Holidays!

I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

I hope you are finding your holiday break restful and rejuvenating, filled with warmth and time with family. I know I am enjoying spending time with both mine and my husband’s extended families. Both of our families are large and loud and full of children under the age of ten. It’s chaotic and joyful and, honestly, one of my favorite gatherings of the year – on both sides.

While sitting in church on Christmas Sunday, my three year old niece brought me a coloring page and began to use my lap as a table. The last one to grab crayons, she was stuck with a really drab brown. She enthusiastically scribbled and scrabbled and scratched her ugly brown crayon all over that coloring page with – seemingly – no rhyme or reason. Breathing heavily, she gave it her all for five frantic minutes.

Then she stopped, held up her art, and sighed. “It’s beautiful.”

My heart melted. Of course it was. She saw beauty where I only saw a mess.

It reminded me of conferencing with my students. There’s always something worth praising, something beautiful in their writing. I don’t know about you but my first instinct is to start with what we can fix, where I can teach by showing what the student can do better. When I start conferencing after the break, I want to remember my niece and ask my students: What do you LIKE about this piece? What’s beautiful?

I think that reframing will make for a good moment in our conferences.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently reading and loving Mo Willems’s picture books. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

Author’s Chair

 

letter blocks

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Every educator has the ‘moment.’ I wish I had a cute name for the ‘moment’ that would make it sound both adorable and relatable – but I don’t. I’ve never named it beyond just the description of it to loved ones and close teaching friends and confidants – but I’m betting you know the moment. That moment where you find yourself googling what other careers you can pursue with a degree in English or Education that isn’t teaching. 

You still love the kids. 

You still love the work. 

But, man, has the work felt like work recently. 

And that’s the moment. When you’re drained and empty and tired and the best way forward is a little bit of fantasy: I could just start an Etsy business and live off of that – sure, I don’t really make anything people are interested in buying, but I could. I  could just take a year off and write the great American novel – sure, I don’t have any ideas for that novel, just some opening pages and some really, really vague outlines (in the vein of stuff happens to people and it’s awesome), but I could. I could just find a job doing data entry somewhere – sure the nine to five would be sooo boring and I hate numbers and data and I’m not sure I could fake even a little bit of joy for that process, but I could… maybe…

I found myself here in 2014, and a teacher friend suggested I apply for Summer Institute with my local Writing Project. This experience was and still is a literal life-changing event for me. Finding a group of like-minded teachers who wanted to deeply invest in a research based development of their practice through yearly inquiry projects was transformative. Finding opportunities to both learn from other teachers who were still in the classroom as well as opportunities to teach other teachers was and is encouraging and growth-inspiring. Five years later I’m still active with MTWP and still continuing to grow and learn from that community. 

Currently on maternity leave, I’ve found myself thinking about my practice a lot. I thought I would spend a portion of this time at home -in between feedings and diaper changes – worried about my students or the interim or how the class room was going without me. And, sure, those thoughts have crossed my mind a time or two, but mostly when I’ve thought about school at all I’ve found myself thinking about my practice in a macro-sense from the beginning of my career until now: what are my “greatest hits” if you will.

When I taught sophomores several years ago, I incorporated a game-changing strategy I learned at MTWP: author’s chair. Every two or three weeks, students would share their writing with the entire class. The process was simple.

Students would sign up to share their writing with the class at least once a nine weeks. Usually we would share every second or third Friday, and the sharing would take the entire 45 minutes. The sharing student would move to the front of the room and sit in my chair, stand behind the podium – whatever made them comfortable – and then share a piece of writing. They could share whatever they liked – a polished piece, something from their notebooks, something they wrote just for this occasion. The point wasn’t WHAT they shared but THAT they shared. After they read their piece, the class would simply, in unison, say, “Thank you for sharing.” And the next student would move to the front of the room to share. I would share as well – often sharing bits and pieces of my unfinished great American novel (eye-roll emoji here). It was powerful for me to remember how anxiety inducing it can be to share your writing with other people. Often I think teachers forget this part because we aren’t sharing our writing and don’t have to feel the nerves and/or we forget the painful part of this practice because we’re so focused on the gains that sharing can have for a student. 

This simple practice increased our classroom community: we were all in the writing process together – writing, revising, sharing, receiving and giving feedback. Students were motivated to write more and in addition to what I was asking them to write in class – they brought in songs, poetry, narratives, a choose your own adventure, comics, satires, op-eds. Together, we enjoyed a wonderful season of writing for the sake of writing and sharing, for the most part, because we were proud of what we had written. 

When I moved to teaching only AP Lang, I moved away from author’s chair, mostly for timing reasons. There seemed to be so much to cover in AP and I was still getting my feet wet with the curriculum that I felt like I needed the time. In this moment of reflection for me, I’m realizing -again- that ultimately students just need to write, to write and to share -even when it doesn’t feel like there’s enough time.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently binging The Mandalorian with her three week old daughter – we’re both equally enthused. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

 

 

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?

A nonnegotiable in my classroom is that everyone is a writer. We work from day one of class to establish identities as writers: we create writer’s notebooks, we discuss writing routines, we practice writing every day.

But many of my students struggle to see themselves as writers because their definition of “a writer” is so narrow. They are beholden to culturally-entrenched images of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens–studious, quill-wielding, miserable, alcohol-fumed, slaves of the pen.

It takes some time to convince kids that despite the intrigue that persona presents, that it’s not true.

I recently encountered a strategy for defining authorship that I continue to return to for its simple brilliance. This school year, I’ve been visiting classrooms of practicing teachers, and one of my favorite places to visit is Gloria Kok’s classroom.

One of the first things that struck me upon entering her room was an entire wall devoted to writers. As I visited over multiple weeks, I realized that her students had created the five points of their working definition of what it means to be a writer. They had also brainstormed personal heroes who fit their definitions. The wall is covered with the likes of everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Oprah Winfrey to Langston Hughes to Tupac.

Frequently, Gloria asks students to use these points to frame their own writing reflections or goal statements. I’ve begun to do this myself, as I’ve visited her classroom so frequently–so much so that I’ve found myself seeking out definitions of what a writer is in my reading and work.

A favorite writing mentor of mine is Donald Murray, whose books I pick up anywhere I find them. I recently acquired Write to Learn, and one of my favorite and most personally relatable definitions of what it means to be a writer comes from his second chapter:

“Not knowing what I will write, or even if I can write, means I will not write what I have written before. I have begun a voyage of discovery. The initial satisfaction from writing is surprise: we say what we do not expect to say in a way we do not expect to say it.”

This approach to writing–that it is an inexpert art full of magic and whimsy, but helped along by the discipline of practice and study–is my personal favorite. The post-it notes papering my desk with quotes by Donald Murray attest to the similarities of our beliefs: these definitions help encourage, refocus, and discipline me on mornings when I do not want to sit down and write.

I encourage you to do the same thing with your students, writers, and even yourself: create a definition of what it means to be a writer. Put it down on paper, hang it on the walls, shout it from the rooftops–whatever works to teach yourself that your belief in yourself as a writer is what matters.

Shana Karnes is a writer who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her desk is covered with quotes about writing, pens, poems, abandoned coffee cups, and discarded crayons, stickers, and paint from her children. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Embrace the Chaos – How Getting Lost in a Corn Maze Brought Me Some Clarity

This past weekend, I found myself unexpectedly lost. An innocent trip to the pumpkin farm to enjoy a beautiful fall day in Wisconsin quickly deteriorated to a literal Children of the Corn situation as my six-year-old and I spent almost 45 minutes lost in a corn maze. It was a maze of maise, as it were, and the two of us were no match for its twists, turns, or other cleverly landscaped stalks of doom.

As our enthusiasm for our new adventure began to wane, my panic level began to rise. It was no surprise that my daughter needed to go to the bathroom. It was no surprise that we hadn’t had lunch yet and were both starving. It was no surprise that the stalks of corn kept thwapping me in the face. I started having visions that we might be stuck in there for quite a while. What if it started to get dark? What if we turned in circles for hours and couldn’t find the entrance or the exit? What if the mini donut stand closed before I could make my way out?

In desperation, I texted my husband. Using some inappropriate words, I conveyed how disappointed I was that I had thought this would be a good idea and that I was getting sincerely scared about how long it would take us to find our way out. Thus far, my daughter and I had been rather innocently complaining about wanting to be done. Thankfully she hadn’t caught on yet to my growing concern about our situation.

A few moments later, we passed a young couple, headed the opposite direction. Trying to defuse tension with humor, as I often do, I smiled brightly and quipped, “Been in here long? Feels like we may have to spend the night in a corn field!”

“Yeah, we’re sort of stuck too,” the woman replied with a sigh. “We’ve been in here almost 90 minutes.”

***Insert Awkward Fake Laughter Here***

As my panic reached a fever pitch, a text came in from my husband.

“There’s no shame in just walking out the side…”

There might not be shame…but there’s a bit of fear for sure.

What if I pull my daughter off the path and into the corn only to lose my bearings completely? What if we walk toward a landmark that just happens to be in the middle of more corn? What if I have to utter the word “corn” one more time and I lose my mind?

Speaking of losing one’s mind. How’s the start of hour school year been for you? (Nice segway, hmmm?) If it’s anything like mine, there is a very thin line between the enthusiasm of this beautiful fresh start, and the disorienting chaos of being lost in the middle of what is indeed familiar, but no less overwhelming. 30 freshman (13 of whom have professed to hate reading. Hate.), will do that to a person. And that’s just one period.

Split lunch makes for quite the scene

But short of diving for the exits (or the pandemonium of a course forward without a path) what’s a passionate educator to do?

  • Routines – Remember to fall back on the routines of workshop when in doubt. When the crazy of homecoming week has your students climbing the wall, starting the class with 15 minutes of silent reading is not only beneficial, but a soothing balm of calm. I don’t compromise on this time – ever. We read no matter what and we read because no matter what, it’s one of the most important things we do. It gives my students time to change the crazy, amped up rhythm of their day, it gives me time to confer with kids, and it sets the tone for the whole class period of learning. Chaos be gone (eventually, as freshmen are still learning this quiet skill).
  • Build relationships – When I take some time to reflect on what’s causing me anxiety in the classroom, it is rarely the students. It’s the grading, the planning, the politics, the meetings, the everything that takes my time away from getting to know my students. So, when I’m struggling (this time it just happened to be in a field of corn), I try to remind myself that knowing my kids (academically and personally) makes all the difference. We can get through the tough together when we’ve established a connection as a class that makes us a community. When that community is focused on building readers and writers, all the better.
  • Self Care – I texted the Three Teachers last night with a bit of a plea/cop-out/desperate cry for help. I wasn’t sure I could post today. Last week saw PD on Monday, a department meeting Tuesday, School Improvement Team time out of the classroom on Wednesday, English Department Review Thursday morning (also out of the classroom) and PLC on Thursday afternoon. Then I got lost in corn. I’m behind and feeling disconnected from my kids. Amy’s simple advice “Self care, self care, self care” reminded me of a very important fact. One, I’m not alone in this treading water scenario and that brings some comfort. Often, in panic, we feel very isolated. In the community of educators, however, there is a lot of support for the over-committed, overtired, over-stimulated teacher. Instead of wallowing in it though, the mindful practice of self care and acknowledgment of our feelings can go far in helping us seek the balance we need.

In these reminders, there is nothing new. And in that, should be the calm in the chaos we all need. When the rows of corn feel stacked against you, choose a path and head in one reassuring direction. You will emerge. You will be in one piece. You will avoid corn mazes from now on, but in terms of the analogy…you’ll have come out the other side with a new appreciation for seeking the type of calm that can positively impact your day, your teaching, and your sanity.


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her – Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

%d bloggers like this: